A Museum, Reborn, Remains True to Its Old Self, Only Better
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: May 17, 2012
PHILADELPHIA — The Barnes Foundation’s move from suburban Philadelphia to the center of the city caused art lovers lots of worry.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Devotees of this great polyglot collection, heavy with Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse, which the omnivore art shopper Albert C. Barnes amassed between 1912 and his death in 1951, were appalled by the idea. Barnes spent years obsessively arranging his installation cheek-by-jowl in the mansion in Lower Merion, Pa., that he built for the purpose and opened in 1925, and he stipulated that, after he died, it should remain exactly as it was.
In 2002 the foundation’s board — constrained by limits on attendance and public hours imposed by zoning restrictions — announced plans to relocate. Many people, including a group that sued to stop the move, were sure that it could only desecrate this singular institution.
Others, myself included, did not object to the move per se, but felt that faithfully reproducing the old Barnes in the new space, as promised by the trustees, was a terrible idea. To us it seemed time to at least loosen up Barnes’s straitjacketed displays, wonderful as they often were. And why go to the trouble of moving the collection to a more accessible location when the galleries were not going to be any bigger?
And yet the new Barnes proves all of us wrong. Against all odds, the museum that opens to the public on Saturday is still very much the old Barnes, only better.
It is easier to get to, more comfortable and user-friendly, and, above all, blessed with state-of-the-art lighting that makes the collection much, much easier to see. And Barnes’s exuberant vision of art as a relatively egalitarian aggregate of the fine, the decorative and the functional comes across more clearly, justifying its perpetuation with a new force.
As a result, his quirky institution is suddenly on the verge of becoming the prominent and influential national treasure that it has long deserved to be. It is also positioned to make an important contribution to the way we look at and think about art.
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, who pulled off this feat — and somehow managed to avoid the feeling of plastic fakeness that Barnes purists and Barnes skeptics alike were anticipating — deserves our gratitude. The Merion building and its 24 galleries, and Barnes’s arrangements within them, have been recreated with amazing fidelity in terms of proportions, window placement and finishings, albeit in a slightly more modern style. The structure is oriented to the south, exactly as in Merion; the same mustard-colored burlap covers the walls; the same plain wood molding outlines doors and baseboards.
As for Barnes’s arrangements, almost nothing is out of place: not one of the hundreds of great French paintings, none of the pieces of Americana, nor any of the Greek or African sculptures, the small New Mexican wood-panel santos or the scores of wrought-iron hinges, locks, door handles and whatnot that dot the interstices like unusually tangible bits of wallpaper pattern, often subtly reiterating the compositions of the paintings.
The only change to the installation — a big improvement — is the removal of the colorful fantasy of nudes in a landscape that is Matisse’s great Fauve masterpiece, “Joie de Vivre,” from its humiliating position on the stairway landing to a large alcove on the balcony overlooking the main gallery.
At the same time, some major systemic improvements make everything breathe in a new way. Especially important is the lighting system, designed by Paul Marantz, which seamlessly mixes natural and artificial illumination into a diffuse, even light, and had early visitors asking if some of the paintings had been cleaned. (They hadn’t.) There is also the spatial largess: The recreated building is set within a larger structure that includes a raft of amenities, among them a cafe, an auditorium and a gracious garden court with lots of padded benches, as well as a 5,000-square-foot temporary exhibition gallery that pulses with curatorial possibility.
Barnes’s arrangements are as eye-opening, intoxicating and, at times, maddening as ever, maybe more so. They mix major and minor in relentlessly symmetrical patchworks that argue at once for the idea of artistic genius and the pervasiveness of talent. Nearly every room is an exhibition unto itself — a kind of art wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities — where you can spend hours parsing the echoes and divergences among the works in terms of color, composition, theme, surface and light.
In Room 4, two Chardins flank a (school of) El Greco beneath 16th-century carved-wood reliefs from France; almost all depict women engaged in various tasks. In Room 14, painted Chinese fans hover beside Matisse’s magnificent 1907 portrait of his wife in a red madras headdress, with a folkish Surrealist painting by Jean Hugo, great-grandson of Victor, positioned above. Several American Modernists make recurring appearances, including Charles Demuth, Maurice Prendergast and William Glackens, a former high school classmate of Barnes’s who turned him on to Modern art; so, to lesser extent, do artists who taught at the Barnes. In front of several Renoirs are wonderful pots by that painter’s son, the future filmmaker Jean.
The twin poles of Barnes’s world are Renoir, represented by 181 works (the largest concentration in the world), and Cézanne, represented by 69. Barnes never seemed to tire of playing these two giants off each other, alternating the fuzzy, sybaritic pinks of Renoir’s forms — whether female or floral — with Cézanne’s anxious, angular blues, greens and rusts, played out in landscapes, still lifes and numerous paintings of bathers, early and late, small and large.
Their back-and-forth dominates several galleries, and the Renoirs are so ubiquitous that at times they seem to become a kind of background noise. That is, until you come up against a great one, like “Leaving the Conservatory,” an imposing full-length grouping of several Parisians dressed in shades of gray that hangs above a predominantly gray-blue Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. These wonderful chests, of which there are several outstanding examples, as well as the numerous ceramics, affirm Barnes’s appreciation of painting as a free-range language expressed in various materials, not only oil on canvas.
There are also seemingly endless surprises, like the lone work by the postwar Italian artist Afro in Room 10, which also contains a veritable Matisse retrospective, including a small, early still life that you could swear is a Manet, and numerous works by Picasso and Modigliani.
And there are oddities everywhere that might not pass muster in a more conventional museum, like a European, possibly 15th-century, panel in Room 23, depicting a Flight Into Egypt. The colors are rich, the figures big and wonderfully drawn, but the real life of the picture emanates from the greenery, applied in loose splotches that bring to mind the brushy, sponged-on glazes of American redware ceramics. Looking at the slightly bizarre bits of green, you have no idea if they were part of the original picture or added later, but you don’t care, and perhaps Barnes did not, either. It made a point about continuities of human touch and technique, and he went for it.
In many ways the rebirth of the Barnes could not be better timed. It occurs at a point of intense public interest in art — witness the fact that since the project’s groundbreaking in November 2009, membership has jumped from 400 to nearly 20,000 — and it approaches art with an unfettered directness that is becoming rare among major American museums, of which the Barnes is now one.
At a moment when so many museums seem bent on turning themselves into entertainment and social centers, or frequently mount dry, overly academic exhibitions, the Barnes irrefutably foregrounds art and nonverbal visual experience. The galleries are devoid of text panels and even wall labels; most works have the artist’s last name or some other cultural identification nailed to their frames, and there are printed guides stored in benches in each gallery that identify the works on view.
Audio guides will be available, but really, there is nothing to do here but look at art and think for yourself. The dense clusters and juxtapositions provide more than enough to work with: a visual deluge of forms — in different mediums and materials, from widely spread times and places — that make looking and thinking reflexive, rapturous and liberating.
At the same time, the relocation of the Barnes, with all its mixings and juxtapositions, comes at a time when curators of all kinds — from museum professionals to artists organizing gallery group shows — are increasingly interested in cross-cultural, cross-medium presentations of artworks. In this regard the Barnes looks utterly prescient.
And let’s not overlook the implications of that temporary gallery, which is opening with an exhibition about Barnes’s life and the history of the foundation. This space creates the possibility of a new flexibility with regard to the meticulous re-creation of the Merion galleries. They suggest that the Barnes may be able to have its cake and eat it too, hold on to its past and also forge a new future.
Barnes purists may consider this heresy, but Barnes’s installation should sometimes change and move a little. There are moments, especially in the upstairs galleries among the plethora of drawings and Greek and African objects, where the presentation palls and oppresses a bit, even now. The symmetrical patchwork doesn’t always come across as meticulously assembled; it can seem arbitrary and maniacally crowded. More generally, there is simply too much there for everything to remain in perpetual lockdown.
The Barnes curators need to come up with creative ways — say for two or three months, every other year — to extract certain works from the gallery collection, walk them across the garden court and put them on view in the temporary-exhibition galleries for less encumbered viewing. Set out all the African works, for example. Give us a Cézanne or a Matisse retrospective. Or a survey of the Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chests and related Americana whose hues and surfaces Barnes was so alive to.
Barnes did so much, more than he was capable of knowing. We can know how much only if his orchestrations are taken apart and rearranged ever so slightly and briefly, once in a while. It is great that Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects, adhered to his vision so sensitively, providing a kind of unwaveringly accurate baseline. But every so often the pieces of even his most revelatory ensembles should be freed from his matrix, just as his amazing achievement has been liberated from Merion.